Minority Profile: Who Are the Romanian Ukrainians?
“I’d say the Ukrainians are people who can adapt anywhere and who earn their bread honestly. We’re a very industrious people.” The description comes from Ms Emilia Codrea, a teacher of Ukrainian at the “Taras Șevcenko” Ukrainian high school in Sighetu Marmației, north Romania.
Emilia’s forebears have been living along Romania’s long border with Ukraine for centuries. In 1930, out of greater Romania’s 18 million inhabitants, almost 600,000 were Ukrainians located mainly in rural areas and making up 3.5% of the country’s population. At that time, most of them were Greek Catholic, with only 5.3% Orthodox. Subsequently, their Church was disbanded by the communist regime in 1948, and they had to convert to Orthodoxy. Fifteen years later, they also lost their right to complete compulsory education in their mother tongue, and they had to study in Romanian, instead. After 1990, though, schooling in their mother tongue was restored, including up to tertiary-level education. At present, they are Romania’s third largest ethnic minority, after the Hungarians and the Roma, making up 0.3% of the country’s total population.
There are three areas in Romania where Ukrainian ethnics live: the north (in the counties of Maramureș, Satu Mare and Suceava), Dobruja in the south-east, and Banat in the west. Each group has their own story, whether peaceful or less so…
The Romanian Ukrainians from the north settled there as early as the 6th century. Shepherding and cattle raising were their main occupation, while their wooden churches became national tourist attractions and their Easter egg decorating tradition brought them international fame.
The Dobrujan Ukrainians are descendants of about 8,000 Cossacks from the Zaporizhian Sich (a semi-autonomous proto-state), who were forced into exile by the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great when she annexed their homeland, in 1775; they were joined up until the second half of the 19th century by groups of small farmers who fled from Ukraine’s southern regions to evade forced recruitment into the Tsarist army.
And Banat’s Ukrainian ethnics started settling there in 1908-1918. They arrived as seasonal loggers, but ended up buying land in the area. Another wave of Ukrainian colonists moved in after 1970, taking over the households left behind by the local German minority who had emigrated to Germany.
Irrespective of where in the country they’ve been based, the Romanian Ukrainians see themselves as well integrated. “We are welcoming people, and we have no wish to stand out,” says a deputy mayor from the northern village of Ruscova. They also perceive themselves as hard-working and generous, and, according to a priest from that same area, rather religious: “I once read that the origin of the word ‘Ukraine’ is ‘to be somewhere at the edge’. So they think of themselves as people at the edge of the world and are therefore very low-profile.”
Adaptability, however, has got to remain one of their main qualities, just like the teacher from Sighetu Marmației pointed out. Today, almost half a million of Ukrainian refugees are joining the Ukrainian ethnics living in Romania. Around 82,000 of them will stay with us. Their story is sadly reminiscent of their Dobrujan Cossack ancestors’: they, too, were driven from their homeland by the merciless greed of a Russian leader. Like their ancestors centuries ago, they, too, are welcome! May time and this, their new land heal their wounds!
International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and face-to-face Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s culture, language or history. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact email@example.com. You can also watch our video series “Your Romanian Class” and subscribe to our YouTube channel, or listen to our series of podcasts “Ascultă româneşte”.